Design thinking is an approach to problem-solving that can be used in virtually any organization, team, or situation in which you are trying to actively engage staff or clients. It applies to leadership, product design, service design, and even effecting change within your organization. Design thinking is, simply put, thinking like a designer.
When it comes to problem-solving in the organizational context, many of us approach this with an eye to solving our business’s needs first. Often, we look at sales or engagement reports and base our approach on their analyses. While this can work to solve these kinds of problems, design thinking posits that a more effective approach is one that is much more human-centered. And when you put it in that context, it seems like a bit of a no-brainer. If you want your staff or clients to care about your organization, then you need to think about where they’re coming from and what they need!
Design thinking asks us not to focus on what our business or organization needs, but what the team’s or clients’ needs are first. In a leadership context, this means putting your employees’ needs before your company’s goals. Whether they’re on your team at work, clients you want to sign up for your services, or customers that you want to buy your product, engaging with people requires us to make emotional connections and have empathy. Rather than making decisions based on historical customer data or instinct, design thinking encourages you to make decisions based on what your team or future clients need.
Design thinking asks us not to focus on what our business or organization needs, but what the team’s or clients’ needs are first.
By breaking out of the inherent patterns of thinking that we are so accustomed to, design thinking urges us to see problems in new ways and come up with innovative and unique solutions. It encourages experimentation and risk to push ourselves beyond the standard operating procedure we’re so accustomed to.
Based on the principles laid out by Herbert Simon in his 1969 book, The Sciences of the Artificial, design thinking follows a series of five phases that move from conceptualization to testing:
Phase one is essentially a matter of stepping into the shoes of your staff or future clients. This is a time for doing some serious research and thinking. Put yourself in the physical environment, talk to people, learn their experiences and motivations. By actually immersing yourself in the environment, you’ll gain a much better understanding of the issues – perhaps even uncovering some problems to be solved that you didn’t realize existed.
You’ve done the research and talked to the people, now what did you find? What are the needs of your staff or clients? What are the problems that arise? What insights have you gained from the first phase? The goal here is to define these needs and problems from their perspective – a human-centred approach is key. Ask questions – even if they seem obvious. That’s often where you’ll find the most insight.
Now we can start thinking about how to solve the problems and deliver staff or clients what they need. This is a time for any and all potential solutions – think outside the box! You’re looking here for unique and innovative ways to address problems – things that you’ve never tried before or aren’t guaranteed to work are all up for grabs. There are some great techniques out there to get those ideas flowing, like Worst Possible Idea, SCAMPER, and Brainwriting.
Once you’ve come up with some ideas, it’s time to create some scaled-down prototypes of how those ideas would actually play out in the real world. The goal here is to create a variety of potential prototypes, share them among your working group, determine what roadblocks may come up in their implementation, and improve on them (or reject them). This is an experimental phase that should leave you with a better sense of what limitations exist to both the problem(s) you’re trying to solve and of how your staff or clients will actually feel, think, and behave when they engage with your organization.
Now it’s time to test those prototypes on your actual staff or clients! The goal of testing should be to re-evaluate the problems and provide more context to your understanding of your staff or clients – that is, how they engage with your organization or services and how they feel, think, and act.
These five phases are not a linear process – ongoing experimentation, testing, questioning, and feedback encourages the creation of more innovative solutions that are focused on the emotional needs of staff and clients, while at the same time taking into consideration what is economically feasible and viable. It’s an approach to problem-solving that can be used by anyone at any level of an organization to tap into both scientific data (like sales reports and historical data) and the emotional needs of your people.